This week we talk to novelist, Sharon Mass
Q: Hi, Sharon Mass, how are you doing? What have you planned for this year?
This year, several books of mine will be published, which is very exciting! Most nerve-racking of all is my soon to be available childhood memoir. I’ve had a pretty adventurous life, and true-life accounts are maybe the next step forward for me. I hope I can continue that journey into the past.
Q: Your autobiography, The Girl from Lamaha Street, is due for release in April. After publishing 12 fictional books, this must have felt like a very different undertaking. How did the process compare, and what prompted you to write your own story?
The Girl from Lamaha Street is about me growing up in Guyana and then, aged ten, flying off to England to attend a girls’ boarding school. As a basically shy person, it was a big step to open up in this way, go back into the past to remember the people, places and events that formed me and made me who I am today. I realised just how much my early days influence my life even now.
I’ve always felt the urge to write about my childhood in Guyana and many of my books are set there. Until now, I’ve disguised my own experiences as fiction, embellished and woven them into a larger, fictional context. My editor encouraged me to write this memoir and, at first, I was reluctant. My life seemed pretty ordinary, even mundane, but she persuaded me that others would find my experiences fascinating and unique. So I took the plunge!
Returning to the past became a new adventure in itself: memories I’d tucked away returned and I began to understand much more about myself, my parents, grandmothers, aunts and uncles.
Q: Most of your previous novels are collections: The World War Two Historicals, The Quint Chronicles, and The Indian Collection. Please tell us a bit about them. Did writing for one series influence your decision to write the others, or are they entirely separate?
The Quint Chronicles were the books I always wanted to write to bring Guyana’s incredible history to life for a larger readership, especially a British readership who tends not to venture so far afield. British Guiana was part of the vast British Empire, yet most Britons know little about their colonial past.
Guyana might be insignificant on the political stage but our people carry stories within us that are worth telling. I wanted to tell those untold stories. It has become almost a mission for me to tell stories about my country and follow the age-old advice to ‘write what you know’.
After I’d written four novels in the Quint series, my editor suggested that I write a World War 2 novel. I was living in Germany then and certainly found the war an intriguing topic. This time, I was writing about what I wanted to know so a lot of research was needed.
I had a wonderful older German friend from the Alsace who had lived through WW2 and even given birth in a bunker during an air attack! She was half Jewish and had always told me her stories when I visited her.
My last WW2 novel, on the other hand, is set in India and Sri Lanka; two countries I also know and love.
Q: The Mahabharata: Sons of Gods seems a departure from the rest. You describe it as your “forty-year long attempt to help bridge the cultural gap between East and West”, which is impressive and incomprehensible! What made you decide to attempt it?
I first went to India on an open-ended backpacking trip when I was 23 years old. I soon came across the Mahabharata, a popular version of the great Indian epic which is a classic of world literature. I couldn’t put it down! Although it was a children’s version, it was the most engrossing, mind-blowing book I’d ever read. I then read other versions, including translations, summaries and retellings, but I felt dissatisfied. They were either too academic, too bland, too sentimental, too long, too short, or simply lacked the scenes I found essential.
So, at the age of 25, I set about writing a version for my own satisfaction. I wanted it to contain the best aspects of all the others. I re-wrote it over the decades, not even thinking of publication, just trying to get it in as perfect a form as possible. When I was finally satisfied, I self-published it in 2012. I recently updated that edition.
Q: We could talk to you about your rich life and extensive travels for much longer. Do you think you would have become a writer had your own experiences been more pedestrian?
Well, Jane Austen had a very pedestrian and insular life, didn’t she? She still became a writer of books that have been read and loved down the centuries!
I think I am by nature a writer. It’s the one thing that comes naturally to me. I feel a need to interpret my experiences into stories and that would have happened even if I’d stayed in Guyana, married young, raised children and not had a single adventure. I’d just have told different stories; domestic ones, perhaps, about Guyanese housewives, laundrywomen and pork-knockers. There are stories everywhere.
Q: Your first book was published when you were fifty. Your mother was an early Guyanese feminist. Did your early influences inform your views about women’s life experiences and ambitions?
Most certainly. My mother – like all mothers of course – paid a formative role in my life. She was very different from other mothers of her era; much less hands-on. She didn’t have a domestic bone in her body, for one thing! I was always encouraged to think for myself, and she never held me back from exploring new avenues. She was fearless, and so was I.
However, I later put it all into perspective. I learned to appreciate that there’s not just one ‘feminist’ avenue for women to walk down. Feminism is not confined to career and ambition. Women can find strength and confidence in whatever role they choose, whether that’s predominately career-oriented or more domestic. I think we will always be the primary carers for our children and that’s an immensely important role that should not be denigrated. We need to be careful not to unconsciously adopt male values along with our feminist aspirations.
Q: What book or books do you think all children in schools should be given to read?
Oh, that’s a difficult question! I know which books paid a huge part in my life, so I’ll list those, but I’m sure there are more contemporary ones that might be even better.
Q: Ok, so the final question Sharon Mass – if all the libraries in the world were burning and you could only save three books, what would they be and why?
The Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and The Book of Mirdad by Mikhail Naimy. (I bet nobody has heard of that last one but it changed my life!)
These are books that teach us how to live our best lives, how to be human, and to find joy, peace and fulfilment inside ourselves. If properly understood, they can enrich and enlighten us. They can nourish us on an elemental level.
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